Literary as hell.

Tag: fiction (Page 1 of 16)

Halloween contest finalist: “The Man with the Hat” by Matthue Roth

As soon as Edie’s Uncle Sly came to visit, she wanted to kick him right back out. It was how he entered the house like he owned it, left his oversized tweed suitcase sitting directly in front of the stairs. He wore a jacket beneath his jacket—tweed, but not matching—and a tie and dark sunglasses and a collared shirt like the men at the bank. She watched his skinny form swimming in the collared shirt and thought of her father’s muscles ballooning out of his Sunday tee. Clearly, this invader was the loser.

“You must be Edie,” he said, sizing her up. “Tell my sister I’ve arrived.”

Most decrepit of all was his hat. That lopsided tweedy thing that only appeared distinguished in his mind. To its original owner, maybe, long before Edie’s uncle acquired it in whatever way he did (found it on the street? took it from the coatrack of a moldy office lobby?).

She turned to go but didn’t say anything. She thought he should at least thank her for allowing him inside.

The mother, having heard the commotion, was already on her way out.

“Edie, look! It’s your uncle Sylvester. Sly, let me take your coat.” She came behind him and helped him slip it off. “Honestly, Edie. It’s like you’ve never entertained a guest before.”

Over Uncle Sly’s shoulder, so he couldn’t see, the mother sent Edie a malicious glare. As he slid out of his sport coat, his back to her mother, Uncle Sly sent her a smile that was even more malicious.

Edie thought of turtles yanking their heads inside shells to avoid other creatures. Then she thought of snakes hiding in holes to catch their prey.

Uncle Sly looked like he could be either one. He was lanky, but his nose was sharp, his eyes lurking beneath his hat, waiting to attack.

A clatter from the stairs surprised them all. Chip, her brother; a twin, but smaller—she the stallion; he the runt—liked to clatter down the stairs, to pitch himself down till he’s caught by God in the arms of gravity. Usually you could hear his feet crash into the floor. Usually there was not Uncle Sly’s suitcase to break his fall.

It pitched forward like a vandalized gravestone. Chip’s arms billowed in a drowning flail. Uncle Sly hurled himself across the room, arms stretched long and skinnier than Edie had thought humanly possible. They caught the suitcase. It wavered and wobbled, but did not fall.

“H-hi, Uncle Sly,” Chip gasped.

“You be careful,” said Uncle Sly. He pointed at the boy. His face was pink. “You watch out.”

His eyes never left Edie.

“You must be famished,” said Edie’s mother. “Come, let me fix you something.”

 

Uncle Sly was Edie’s mother’s brother. She didn’t know much about her mother’s family, only that there wasn’t a lot of it. The first time he visited, Edie was too young to remember many of the details. The next time, Edie only remembered trying not to see, or be seen by, him.

Uncle Sly didn’t take off his hat during lunch or dinner. Both meals he was seated next to Edie. His skinny tie seemed to span all the width of his body. He barely chewed. He ate and ate, shoveled food inside him, stopping only to demand to be passed more.

At least at dinner there was Edie’s father.

Again, the demands. Again, the shoveling of food. The long skinny arms that stretched clear across the table. He turned to Edie with fresh orders: Lemons. Tuna. Cold rice. Chili sauce. A steak.

“Hey there, Slyster,” the father said, reaching around his shoulders with one arm and making a stop sign with the other hand. “Go easy on the hunting. We don’t got the budget for this, and you don’t got the room for it.”

Uncle Sly’s head rotated toward the father, and his gaze was steel.

For a moment, the father looked confused. Then he looked angry. Then scared. His hand stayed around Uncle Sly’s shoulder, and his muscles throbbed.

Uncle Sly’s eyes never left the father.

“Don’t talk to me like that. And don’t touch me,” he said crossly. “Edie, I would like some cocktail onions.”

He reached back and wrapped his fingers around the father’s wrist, just where a bracelet would be. He pried the father’s arm off and away from him. He held it in the air, away from him and away from Edie’s father, a trophy, an independent thing. The father’s face twisted in pain. Uncle Sly gave a grotesque, toothy smile. Edie hurried to the kitchen and at once spied the jar of yellowy brine, tiny white spheres bobbing inside like eyeballs.

At the table, her father was rubbing his wrist feverishly. Uncle Sly reached for the jar and ran his tongue along his teeth. “Cocktail onions,” he whispered reverently. Her brother Chip, who loved those onions, watched for Uncle Sly to finish so he could claim the jar. Edie knew it was useless. She could feel it from Uncle Sly. He wouldn’t be finished with the jar until it was finished.

Edie’s mother cleared the first volley of plates. “Edie,” said her mother. “Edie,” said Uncle Sly in the exact same tone. “Aren’t you going to help?”

Edie looked at her mother, who was balancing an empty serving tray and did not notice. Edie started to collect the plates. Uncle Sly, having popped the last onion in his mouth, tilted the jar to his lips and drank deep.

 

Edie’s mother worked tirelessly. Edie had never considered it before. Her father worked at the power plant; her mother worked at home. There were rooms to clean, meals to cook, the baby. It was like a job, only you never got paid.

Edie had never seriously considered the future. Maybe she would get married, if she found the right boy and the circumstances were right, maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she would find a job, maybe she wouldn’t. And Chip, too, though it was hard to imagine, with his too-formal and unmatching clothes and his bumbling way, would maybe one day meet a girl he liked. Uncle Sly had no wife, from the little her mother said of him. She never really spoke of him when he wasn’t here, except to say he was coming. She never spoke of him when he was here, except to say, “We must be respectful and treat Uncle Sly exactly as he asks. Besides us, he has no one to career for him, and it’s our duty to make him feel accepted.”

It was unclear to Edie exactly why Uncle Sly was visiting. It wasn’t for their benefit. In the mornings he left early, announcing he would be gone all day. “I’ll need lunch,” he said, pricking a brown bag off the kitchen counter—Chip’s—and slipping on his jacket and sunglasses. He had come down the stairs wearing his hat.

“Hey!” Edie said. “You can’t take that!”

Uncle Sly came close. He bent down to look at her as though his body were folding in half, hinged at the hips, until his face was level with hers and the brim of his hat almost touched her forehead and she could see two of herself in his glasses. Both of her were tinted like oil rainbows.

“I think your mother needs some help upstairs,” he said.

And he left.

“Edie!” cried her mother.

She really did need help. It was laundry day, and the Laundromat was closing early. They stripped the beds and collected clothes. She came back down to find Chip had already left for school, and if she didn’t just then, she’d be more than regular late and in the realm of actual trouble.

But when she got to school, sneaking in through the delivery garage to avoid the advisory-first period rift, she found Chip hiding there, eating an unheated breakfast sandwich, sucking fatty bits off his fingers.

“It’s Uncle Sly,” he complained. “I can’t get anything to eat at home. He takes it all.”

“At least you don’t have to prepare it for him,” she grumbled. “He’s, like, grooming me to be a Happy Housewife.”

But after school, when she mentioned as much to her mother, all she received was a scoff. “It’s time you started taking care of your family. Not to mention yourself,” she said, facedown, scrubbing at a particularly violent stain in the shower. “I won’t be here to do it forever, you know.”

Normally, Edie would have let this sit. She was used to peering in the door of her mother’s sadness, then quickly passing by.

Today, however, something ignited within her.

“Why not?” she said. “It’s exactly what you do for Uncle Sly.”

Her mother cast down the cloth—it was one of Edie’s father’s old t-shirts—and wrung her hands together.

“One day you’ll understand what it means to have a brother,” she said. “We are all of us born into the darkness alone. It’s a godsend when anyone takes your hand walking through that darkness, no matter what’s on the end of it.”

 

Over the next days, Uncle Sly filled the house with a dark presence that never seemed to depart, even when he did.

Most of the day he was out, although where exactly he went he would never say. Edie asked her mother and she said it was for work. Then Edie asked what work he did, and she said she didn’t know.

One thing Edie did know: since he came, it was a full-time job taking care of Uncle Sly. His food, his laundry, washing out the smell that pervaded whenever he entered a room, straightening all the out-of-place things he pointed out with the critical eye of a real-estate agent, or a home ec teacher, or a police detective. His constant demands on Edie’s mother, and Edie’s mother’s constant demands on Edie. On Wednesday Edie’s mother looked up from the breakfast dishes and said, “I don’t think you can go to school today.”

“I can’t?” The news should be joyous, but her mother’s tone of voice summoned worry.

“There’s so much to do here,” she sighed. “I need your help.”

“Mom,” said Edie.

“It’s just for today,” she said, as though it were an apology.

Chip watched from the doorway to the living room, perched at the last stairs. He watched the kitchen like a wolf in spring. But Edie’s eyes warned him, and instead of going in he left quickly for school.

 

Edie hadn’t gone to school in days. She wore the same clothes that she had almost since he’d come, since she now feared adding to the pile of her tasks. The house was to be kept clean—it was clean, each linen tucked in place and the stacks of dishes meticulously reassembled—but every time somebody breathed, her unclear father, one of the men, she raced to correct it. And poor Chip. He was the reason the kitchen was clean, scavenging from crusts and crumbs to form some semblance of a meal, too small and too slow, the last to any plate served. Why did their mother not notice, or, having noticed, help him? Edie was reduced to a cog, one small wheel in the machine. She was unable to reverse it or stop it or do much anything except keep on turning. The house had never been so immaculate, but she was a mess. When her best friend Toby had tried to come over after school one day, Edie had refused to come to the door. It was as much resistance as she could muster, refusing to acknowledge the truth of her new status.

The house rose and fell on Uncle Sly’s mood. He came home furious and the mother rushed to listen and assist, waving to Edie to set dinner on the stove. He came home tired and satisfied, or tired and proud, and they hastened to reward him. Edie’s father avoided him as one does a neighborhood dog who may be rabid or just hungry. The father had given up asking when Uncle Sly’s visit would end. The food vanished as quickly as it was replenished. And yet Uncle Sly only grew thinner, swimming in the button-down shirts Edie starched, like a kid dressing up as a Halloween ghost.

 

One night the tranquility shattered. It was dinnertime, they had made a stew—Edie’s idea, that way no one could take anyone else’s portion—and Uncle Sly, instead of passing, cradled the bowl in one arm and lifted the ladle to his lips and began to slurp. “Sly,” came the mother, lifting herself from her seat, “here, let me serve you some,” and Chip staring at the dribble off the spoon’s edge back into the bowl knowing he would never taste a drop of it, and Edie leapt up, ready to grab the bowl herself, to wrench it straight from those skinny skeleton hands.

Edie had misjudged the distance, however, and the mother had just transferred the bowl from Uncle Sly’s hands to her own. Her mother, surprised, released the stew at once, and instead of wrapping her hands around the bowl, Edie found herself losing her grasp as it flew across the kitchen table, upturned and tumblesauced, depositing the entirety of its contents in a neat volcanolike pile on the linoleum floor.

She couldn’t remember what was said or who said it, only Uncle Sly taking offense, leaping up from his place at the table, aiming one quivering skeletal finger at her. “You ruined my dinner,” he snapped at Edie, although she was pretty sure it was mostly her mother’s fault. “I didn’t even get to taste it.”

He stopped only to snatch a new plastic bag of carrots from Chip, who had just extracted them from the fridge, so close to claiming it. The force of the grab threw Chip to the ground. Uncle Sly shoved one in his mouth, snapped it in half, and stormed to his room.

Edie’s body shook like it was trying to contain an earthquake. In front of the fridge, Chip began to cry.

“What should I do, Edie?” the mother said. “We only want the best for him. He only wants the best.”

“Mom,” said Edie. “You need to say something.”

“But what can I say?”

Edie was silent, and she knew her mother would not.

The house fell silent, too. Night settled, the father came home, the mother wordlessly greeted him. Everyone went off to their evening rituals. The parents went to bed at once, sad and shrunken. She heard their light go off, heard the death of silence from their bedroom. Edie would have wrestled with her homework, but she hadn’t been to school in so long she couldn’t remember what she was studying. Only the heavy labored breathing from the upstairs room told her that Uncle Sly was still there, still ruling over them with the threat of his being awake.

She stood outside his door for a while, gripped by the strength of his presence. Her mother walked by, armed with a square stack of laundry in each arm. She saw Edie and bit her lip. She shook her head.

Edie shook her head back. The mother passed on.

Chip walked mindlessly past her to the bathroom. She heard the flush, the faucet, the shuffle off.

“Don’t forget to brush your teeth,” she called without thinking.

“What for?” he said.

She was alone in the hall. She lay a hand on his door. It felt like he did, sticky and warm. With her other hand, she twisted the knob and slid it open.

She took a step inside and retched. The air was like inhaling bugs. Thick and smelling of waste. A trash can gone too long without rinsing, a meal of meat and soggy eggs left out on a hot day. Just being here was wrong. Just this room was wrong, whatever he’d done to it.

Still the rhythmic inhale of his mouth and chest. The darkness ate up her movements. he slept in complete black. She reached out in front of her and could see nothing. When her foot left the ground, there was a resistance of something sticky, as if the floor was trying to hold her there.

She took one step, then another. She sensed the location of the bed rather than seeing or touching it. Maybe from cleaning the room so often, she had memorized it. But no. She knew everything in this place, she could feel the existence of the bed, the desk. The spot where he’d left his oversized floppy alligator shoes. The chair in the middle of the floor with the stack of free books he’d picked off the sidewalk, their pages brittle and stained.

The bed. Where he slept, loud and still. His body lay atop the covers, flat, face up, eyes closed, mouth open. He snored like thunder. He snored like an animal snarl. his puff of lips sucked the whole room in, its rancid air, its stuffiness and stickiness. Then he released it in a defeated sigh.

He was still wearing his hat.

Once perhaps it was a mark of status, when Uncle Sly was just starting out in whatever business he did, back when his future was promising and undefined, a future of business and trips and hotel rooms, not to his hometown, not to his sister.

Is this how I’ll be?

She loved Chip. her love for him went deeper than her life. She wished better things for him, when he graduated this school and this town, when his genius could finally stop hiding and shine. She was devoted to him, in a way she knew would never leave her as long as she lived.

She reached down. In a moment she had grabbed Uncle Sly’s hat. Just quick, no thought. She was so mad that she crushed its dome in her fingers.

It squashed easily, no resistance from his head. It was like it wasn’t even under there.

His chest rose and fell. His heavy gasping breathing continued.

Careful, now, she reached down again. Her eyes had warmed to the dark. She could see Uncle Sly’s head, now a circular cut-out, stopping where his head had started. It was like a hole. Still quiet, she reached in.

What her hands touched was wet and murky. Not solid, not slime. Fingers came together around a circular stump that she recognized as one of the carrots from dinner, the stump at the top—barely intact, half digested. She shuddered and cast it to the floor.

He gave a cry.

She reached in again. Her fist closed around more stuff. Pasta, mashed potatoes, hunks of meat. She grabbed as much as her hands could hold and, handful after handful, she tossed it to the floor.

She touched no brain, no bones, no muscles or organs. Or maybe she did, but they felt like nothing, just more of the junk that was inside him. One fist and then another, she pulled it out—some of it stringy, some clumpy, some almost solid, though they popped when she squeezed too hard, some almost melted, all of it wet.

He gurgled, throat dry or maybe full. He was awake. His hand clawed at her wrist, trying to make her stop.

“Whaaargh…”

His fingers clenched, they tried to tighten, but crumpled when they touched her. They slipped away like an empty plastic bag.

By the time she was done, the floor was thick with goo. The carpet oozed every step she took. She turned on the bedside lamp. Not a lot of light, but enough to see.

He was nothing now. His body was as rumpled as his clothes. She knew she’d have to clean it up. For this, though, she didn’t mind.

She considered going to bed early—tomorrow she’d wake up, make herself and Chip an extra big breakfast before heading off to school, and of course she’d need extra time at the mirror. But she didn’t need sleep. It felt like she’d been sleeping for weeks.

She stole downstairs, snuck the family phone into a closet, and called Toby. Toby had her own phone; Edie could call her at any time, day or night. She had so much to catch up on. She could talk and talk. She could talk forever.

 


Matthue Roth wrote the novel Rules of My Best Friend’s Body, the picture book My First Kafka, and a very short song for John Legend. He lives in Brooklyn with his four daughters, and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com.

“Across The Street,” a short story by Katharine Grubb

I watched the house from the time the sour old owners, the ones with the massive credit card debt, had moved out. For a couple of weeks, through the dappled shadows of the maple tree growing between the sidewalk and the street, I monitored the side-stair colonial as realtors and their client toured it, wondering if the inspector caught the foundation trouble in that one corner. 

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“Avocado,” a flash fiction piece by John Brantingham

You try to steer Cyndi in her Hulk costume away from the house three doors down where the pediatrician lives. He opens the door and pulls an avocado and a toothbrush out of a basket and tosses them into her pillowcase. He says, “Happy Halloween.”

Cyndi thanks him, but you can’t help yourself. You say, “You know it takes a special kind of asshole to give a child a lecture instead of a piece of candy.” You point into his basket overflowing with the Earth’s bounty. “Is that a beet?”

He cocks his head. “What? Did you have a couple before you took your kid out trick or treating?”

Of course, you did, but only because you forgot it was Halloween, and anyway, you thought you’d mouthwashed the smell away. Apparently not. “Yes, madam,” you say, “but tomorrow, I’ll wake up sober, and you’ll still be a shithead.” The quotation is right on the top of your head because you’ve been teaching Churchill in your graduate seminar for the last two weeks. You know you got it wrong and the “madam” probably confused the guy a little, but it feels like a good retort, so you spin on the back heel and catch up with Cyndi who’s sitting on the front lawn.

By now, the guy’s slammed his door, so you say to her, “If you want, we can throw the produce through that fucker’s front window.”

“No, Dad, no. I’m the peaceful Hulk.” This is probably why she drew a Mercedes Benz symbol on the chest of her costume. She brings the avocado up to her nose and inhales and smiles and then lifts it up to you. 

You take it and breathe it in, and it fills you up. “You make a good point, Gumdrop, and besides there’s more loot to be taken on this street.”

She takes it back and smells it once more. “It’s so good,” she says. “It’s just so fucking good.”

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“Friendly Flames,” a short story by Hugh Cartwright

Gran spreads out her knickers on the baking tray.  

I hardly dare peek: my mother says it’s a crime to stare at undies, especially those of old people. 

But Gran doesn’t care. 

Next, she reaches for the string that loops across the kitchen and tugs my undies off it. Laying them carefully beside her own, she slides the tray into the oven. 

Gran is weird – but a good sort of weird. She bakes bread in a flowerpot, and grows mustard and cress on wet facecloth. At Christmas, she sends me home-made fudge in a used can of chick peas, with a dollar coin taped to the bottom. The label is amended with black pen to Chuck Pea, her pet name for me. I’ve kept all the cans she has ever sent. 

There’s a pop as the gas ignites; Gran beams. “Friendly flames on a freezing morning; what could be better?” As I watch the flames, she stretches across and ruffles my hair. I duck away, though secretly I love the touch of those soft, wrinkled hands.  Continue reading

2021 Halloween contest winner: “My Haunting” by Jamie Orsini

This is what I know to be true about the New Vernon House in Chepachet, Rhode Island. 

In 1835, the Vernon family home burnt to the ground, claiming the lives of Constance Vernon, 38, and Matthew Vernon, 7. Thomas Vernon, 45, and his surviving sons, George, 16, and John, 13, buried their loved ones on the property before rebuilding what is now known as the New Vernon House. Upon his father’s death in 1849, George Vernon sold the property, reportedly saying “it was a fine home . . . but haunted to me.” These facts are not in dispute: the tragedy was covered at length in the New-England Telegraph, and digitized articles are now accessible through the Library of Congress. George never again publicly commented on the home, leaving locals and historians to wonder what he meant by the word “haunted.” Did he experience something supernatural there? Or was the house just a painful reminder of the loss of his beloved mother and brother?

Over the years, the New Vernon House has been the subject of speculation and gossip, as well as the scene of several reported ghost sightings and paranormal occurrences. Some say the house smells faintly of smoke, even today. Others swear they’ve seen a woman in black walking the property at night, clutching her chest and calling for help. Separating fact from fiction, rumor from reality has proven difficult. But I’m trying, and here’s why: there’s something else I know to be true about the New Vernon House. It’s the last place my daughter was reportedly seen alive.


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“Chasing the Light” by Will Maguire

Years agoit was many lives agoI worked nights in Manhattan. Some people call that grave shifting or paying dues. Others call it chasing the light.

To stay awake I used to buy coffee at Smilers, the deli on 7th Ave in the Village. Usually around 3 am.

Every night on a crate in front of Smilers sat an old black man. White hair, blind. I think he was mildly autistic. He rocked back and forth endlessly. Like Ray Charles caught in the groove. Next to the crate was a boom box, and a simple handwritten sign: Please.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Wright Sister by Patty Dann

the wright sister by patty dannReview by Tess Tabak

Everyone has heard about the famous Wright brothers, who gave humanity the gift of flight. But who was behind the brothers, helping them face the public and knitting them zigzag socks?

 

Patty Dann’s The Wright Sister explores the oft-forgotten Katharine Wright, Wilbur and Orville’s sister. This is based on a true story: Orville Wright was apparently a very particular man, and although he and his sister were very close, he immediately stopped speaking to her after she was married. The book combines Katharine’s “marriage diary” with a series of letter she writes to Orville after he stopped speaking to her. (Wilbur had already passed away by this point.)

 

Aside from Orv and Katharine’s very real rift, much of the rest of the book comes from Dann’s imagination. She did some light research, but didn’t let details stop her rich fictitious version of Katharine’s life. Katharine Wright is an interesting character, a strong feminist with as strong a technical knowledge of airplanes as her brothers had. In Dann’s hands, she is very outspoken and honest in the pages of her own diary, admitting her lust for her husband and newly discovered pleasure (she married for the first time in her fifties). There are some tongue in cheek nods to the true author’s actual knowledge of historical events (in 1928 she writes Orville that she hopes he’s not investing money in the stock market, for example) but for the most part it feels fairly true to the time period in which it was set.

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“Weekly,” by Jonathan Kravetz

Matt pushes open the rear door to the office and creeps across the floor in torn jeans and a flannel shirt.  He wipes his nose on his sleeve and peers through the square hole separating the front office from editorial.  He clenches his teeth against the bitter air, but can’t discern any sounds except the light tapping of a keyboard and the radiator clicking.  Then a woman’s voice and then another buzzes like a radio going in and out of tune.  Leaning closer, he attempts to translate the sounds into language, but can only make out hard k’s and soft s’s.  One of them is Jean, his editor, and the other is Mary Ellen, the 25-year old receptionist.  His girlfriend.  Maybe they’re talking about the weather or the details for an important delivery, but Mary Ellen’s face, when he saw her a moment earlier through the front glass window, had the look of someone sharing important secrets.  A chair scrapes against wood and Matt abruptly steps backwards, careens over Jean’s desk, and crashes into her chair, spilling it on its side.  He rushes to his own desk and turns on his computer.  It’s just coming to life when he feels a tap on his shoulder.

“When’d you get in?”  Jean comes around to the front of his desk.

“A few minutes ago.” Continue reading

“Class Clown” by Stu Newman

Dear Parent or Guardian,

   SKYLAR RICHARDS    has been suspended from Southport High 

School for       FIVE DAYS     , commencing on        IMMEDIATELY       

The grounds for suspension are                    MISCONDUCT                   

An administrative conference to determine the above was conducted 

before    SCHOOL FACULTY     on ____TODAY       . The student will be 

expected to return to school on                IN FIVE DAYS                          .

 

Personally, I thought suspension was a bit over the top. I mean, all I did was stick out my middle finger during the junior class portrait. Not exactly a high crime. I thought I had gotten away with it. I placed the finger on my thigh and hooked my thumb into a belt loop so the photographer wouldn’t notice. He was shooting a group portrait for the yearbook. It was the picture we’d all look back fondly on when we were old geezers. I imagined people pointing to me and saying, Look at that Skylar Richards, flipping the bird. What a card. 

But the photographer caught it the next day. Submitted the evidence to the principal who, in turn, awarded me with a one-week suspension. Effective immediately. I didn’t care. I figured I would catch up on some TV. Maybe dust off my bong pipe. But this was not to be. Mom and Dad went ballistic. Placed me under house arrest. Assigned a litany of chores so onerous it would have horrified the Council on Human Rights. Scrub the floors. Polish the furniture. Mow the lawn. I’ll spare you the rest.

There weren’t many ways to ratchet up the punishment, with the exception of death or dismemberment. So, I figured I’d better comply while I still could walk. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you should always show remorse. The system is set up to reward the sad sack who regrets his actions. It pays to be a good actor. And let me say, I could give Tom Hanks a run for his money.

Unfortunately, the sad-sack routine did nothing for me. You see, it wasn’t the first time I’d been in trouble. Not even the first time that week. Just a few days before, I made a fart noise in study hall that nearly rattled the windows. I didn’t mean for it to be so loud. It’s amazing how sound will travel in a big room like the cafeteria, where they held study hall. BWARF! went the noise when I flapped my upper arm against the back of my other hand, which was lodged in my pit. The kids thought it was hysterical. They all knew it was me. So did the teacher. She sent me straight to the principal, who, in turn, called my parents. Just for making a stupid fart noise. God, what is this world coming to?

I’ve pulled about every stunt on Earth. And I’ve been caught just about every time. I’d make a terrible thief. Would probably land in jail for trying to steal a peanut. And I’ll admit, my antics are none too original. The fart noise was not original. Neither is mimicking teachers behind their backs, which I do a lot. I exaggerate their movements while crossing my eyes and pushing out my front row of choppers like they’re buck teeth. Drives the kids crazy. A real crowd pleaser. Skylar Richards, at your service.

And now I was about to pay for my sins with a week of hard labor. My parents sat me down. My father clasped his hands so tight, he could have cracked a walnut between them. My mother’s brows were knitted in anger. She did most of the talking. Most of the screaming, that is. Hysterical, would be a good word. Told me she was “gravely disappointed,” like I was a kitchen appliance that stopped working. Said she was “putting a list together.” Some sort of regimen fit for a Gulag laborer. All work, no play for five days. No video games. No TV. No internet.

“No internet?” I said. “How can I keep up with my schoolwork?”

“Read your books,” my mother said.

At that moment, I realized my parents were capable of anything. No matter how sinister. I used to think they were just odd people. Difficult to get along with. My father, with his trim gray hair and thick brows, always reminded me of Mr. Rogers—if Mr. Rogers had lockjaw and never smiled. My mother wore her hair in a short bob. She was rail thin. Looked like she’d been on a hunger strike for the past ten years. Against what, I don’t know. Maybe my father. He complained a lot, especially about his job. I don’t know what he did at his investment firm. Only that he had a bone to pick with a guy named Osley, who had screwed up the budget. Brought the wrong reports to the board meeting. Filled the water cooler with hand soap. I don’t know why he just didn’t fire the guy. After all, Osley didn’t seem to know his ass from a laser printer. My mother’s job, on the other hand, was easy to understand. Real estate agent. No mystery there.

Now here they were, my captors, taking away my internet. For all I knew, they had already changed the WiFi password. Or shut off the router completely. Their hearts were as black as coal. In all my sixteen years, I had never faced a more dire situation. The future looked bleak.

As the days passed, I tried to do the chores as prescribed by Mom. Things did not go well. Mowing the lawn wasn’t bad. But the housework was killing me. I don’t know if you’ve ever vacuumed, but it’s not pleasant. You drag the thing around, this cumbersome piece of plastic—it gets caught on every table leg you pass. And it doesn’t suck up every last bit of dirt. Dog hairs are particularly stubborn. Meanwhile, our black Lab, Barkley, is a virtual shedding machine. His sole purpose in life is to excrete fur. You can hold the nozzle over his hair for hours without drawing up a single strand. You’d think they would have invented a better device by now. I mean, the vacuum has been around for how long? The cavemen had them, right? I believe I read about them in the Bible. In fact, if you look closely at a picture of the Last Supper, I think you’ll see a guy vacuuming in the back of the room.

By day three, I was exhausted. Housecleaning was a thankless task. Labor intensive and unrewarding. Mom even had me changing the bed sheets. Talk about misguided inventions. It’s like trying to put a girdle on an elephant. The mattresses weigh a ton. Then there was dusting, mopping, sweeping. All straight from hell. It’s amazing that men got women to do this shit for the past two thousand years. What a racket us dudes had. No wonder we didn’t want it to end.

It didn’t help that my family lived in a big house. A colonial style job with a pointed entrance. Gabled, I think you’d call it. About nine windows out front. Rectangular. Double-hung, Mom would say. Dining room, living room with a fireplace, and a library filled with books last read when the Mayflower sailed over. Four bedrooms upstairs. A perfect dwelling for a dysfunctional family like ours. Even my brother Collin had his own room. He’s ten. A little blond bundle of joy. Kid’s always happy. I don’t think he even cried when he popped out of Mom’s womb. Although, I wasn’t there. Couldn’t really tell you. Anyway, Collin smiles through everything. Even Dad’s tirades. Just sits there grinning like my father is Big Bird, or Oscar the Grouch. Who wouldn’t love a kid like that?

Which brings me to day four, when a call came in from Collin’s elementary school, on that vintage ornament known as the landline. I picked it up. You use it just like a regular phone. It was the head teacher, Mr. Portman. He asked to speak to one of my parents. I guess he figured they didn’t work, and would just be sitting around the house knocking down a few suds. I clicked into prankster mode. Said to hold on. Stomped my feet like I was walking away. Then I stomped back. I imitated my father.

“Richards, here.”

“Good afternoon, sir. How are you today?”

“Goddamn busy. Busy as a bee. You must know how that is, running that school of yours. Probably not getting any younger trying to keep that nuthouse in order. What time is it anyway? One o’clock already? Where the hell does the day go? How can I help you?”

“Well, sir, I wish I were calling on a better note. But I’m sorry to say I have some rather unsettling news. It’s about your son, Collin. We’re having a bit of a problem with the young man. I’m afraid he’s been disruptive in class. We tried to work the matter out internally but—”

“Disruptive? Collin? You sure?” I said, going out of character. It was such a shock. Collin never disrupted anything. Occasionally, he’d get a little bratty, just to let us know he wasn’t actually a wind-up doll. But that was rare.

I resumed my impersonation of my father. “Goddamn kid. Misbehaving. What did he do?”

“Well, we’re drafting a letter to that effect, this afternoon. It should be finalized by the end of day. Unfortunately, we don’t have an email address for you on file. Nor a cell phone number, for that matter. Regardless, we’ll be giving Collin a hard copy to present to you when he arrives home. We just wanted to apprise you of the situation, to ensure that he delivers the letter as expected.”

I felt my face flush. I wanted to tell Mr. Portman to take his letter and deliver it to his rear end. Do what you want to me. Suspend me. Expel me. Jail me in a maximum-security prison in Bangkok. I don’t care. But lay off my brother. He never hurt a fly. I needed to get off the line before I blew it. I tried to say goodbye but Portman seemed to have taken a shine to me.

“I’m sorry to have made your acquaintance on such a trying note, Mr. Richards. Perhaps someday, we can meet under more auspicious circumstances. I would like to extend an open invitation for you and Ms. Richards to join me for a meeting, at a time of your choosing, to discuss—”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll pencil you in,” I said. “Gotta go. Goddamn paperwork is piling up.”

I just about hung up on him. Then I sat on the living room couch. The thing was in vibrate mode. Who knew it could do that? Barkley trotted up. Nuzzled his head on my leg. I noticed a trail of dog hairs in his wake. I gave him a little pat. “Do you believe this shit? Our little Collin causing problems at school.” Barkley groaned in sympathy. It didn’t hurt that I was massaging the underside of his neck. He liked that. After about twelve seconds of deep thought, I decided I would get Mr. Portman’s note from Collin and destroy it immediately. Burn it in that nice fireplace of ours. Keep it out of my parents’ hands.

My brother arrived home a few hours later, looking snappy in a plaid shirt and corduroy pants. I was in the kitchen, scraping dirt from between the tiles with a toothpick. He nearly walked past without so much as a hello. Offered a quick wave of his hand as he hurried by.

“Hey, skippy, what’s up?” I said. “Where you off to in such a rush?” I got up and pulled a chair from the kitchen table. “Here, buddy, have a seat. Take a load off.”

Collin plopped himself down and set his book bag on the table.

“Had a rough day, champ?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“Wanna talk about it?”

He shook his head.

“I see. Listen, you hungry? Would you like something to eat? Ice cream? Candy? There’s a cake in the fridge. You want a slice?”

“It’ll spoil my appetite,” Collin answered, sounding all grown up.

“It certainly will,” I said, already removing the chocolate layer cake from the refrigerator. I hacked off a slice. Poured him a glass of milk. “Listen, I spoke to this guy from your school. Mr. Dorfman.”

“Portman,” Collin said, shoveling in a forkful of cake. Half of it made it to his mouth. Barkley attended to the rest. “He talked to Dad. Did he talk to you, too?”

“He did not talk to Dad. He spoke to me, while I was making believe I was Dad. It’s between you and me, buddy. Dad knows nothing.”

Collin frowned. His little brain seemed to be working overtime. He drank some milk. Only a little bit dribbled down his chin. Barkley looked disappointed. I asked to see the letter. Collin pulled it from his bag. It was on Southport Elementary School stationary. The wording was formal. I imagined Portman himself had written it. Had that tight ass’s signature phrases all over it. Dear parents, We regret to inform you, blah, blah, blah. In a nutshell, it said Collin had misbehaved. Scrunched up a piece of paper and threw it at another kid. Fortunately, the other kid survived. Unfortunately, when reprimanded, Collin stuck out his tongue. Things escalated. Collin called the teacher a name. The one that starts with “ass” and ends with “hole.” You get the picture. As I went through the note, my eyes flipped back and forth from the paper to Collin’s face. I poked at the sheet.

“You do all this?”

He didn’t answer. Took the Fifth. Smart kid.

“Well, you’re lucky Mom and Dad will never find out. That’s all I have to say.”

“I don’t care.”

“Don’t care? Are you crazy? They’ll take your toys away. Your video games. Your Lego Star Wars Set. Your Nerf Dart Blaster. You’ll be stripped of your guns. Every last one of them.”

His eyes opened wide. So did his little mouth. “They wouldn’t …” he said.

“Oh, but they would. Their cruelty has no bounds. But don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” I jammed the letter in my pocket. “You are hereby absolved of your sins.”

Collin nodded.

“But, listen,” I said, “I have to ask you, why’d you do all this stuff? I mean, you’ve always been such a good little kid.”

“Dunno.”

“That’s it? You don’t know? But you’re a straight-A student, Colly. I’ve seen your report card. Why go crazy on us all of a sudden? This kind of stuff will get you nowhere.”

“You do it.”

“Excuse me?”

“You do crazy stuff. You’re always in trouble.”

I leaned forward. “Listen, little man. You don’t want to follow in my footsteps. I’m the wrong guy to choose for a role model. Look at me. Sitting home. Cleaning the kitchen. Scraping dirt from cracks in the tiles.”

Collin gazed around the room. “Place looks clean.”

“Look, Colly. If I destroy this note, will you do me a favor and cut the shit? Go back to being the good little kid you always were.”

“How about you?”

“What about me?”

“Will you cut the shit, too?”

“Don’t say that word. Don’t curse, buddy.”

“You just did. Even Steven.”

I took a breath. “Listen, why do you care what I do? It’s beside the point.”

Collin crossed his arms. “Fair and square.”

“Fair and … huh? What does that mean?”

Collin shrugged. I tapped my finger on the table. I realized my father did this when he was thinking, which creeped me out. I shook out my arms like they do in aerobics videos, then placed my hands on my thighs. “Listen, Colly, what if I told you I was never gonna get into trouble again? That I would turn a new leaf. Mend my ways. Become a model citizen. Student of the century.”

Of course, I could never deliver on that promise. It wasn’t in my DNA. In fact, my words rang so high on the bullshit meter, I thought I heard bells. I was a hypocrite. A crooked politician. I should have run for office right then. Collin didn’t respond. What did I expect? My words were hollow. Not fit for the discerning ears of a ten year old.

“Can I go to my room now?” Collin asked.

“Sure, buddy. Go ahead. I’ll clean up here.”

Collin thumped upstairs to his bedroom. I cleared the table. Scrubbed his plate and held it to the light. I thought maybe I’d see my reflection. Make sure I was still a gangly kid with spiky black hair, and not a middle-aged guy that looked like Mr. Rogers. But there was nothing in the dish’s dull finish. I guess it was old and worn out. Like me. At sixteen, no less. Go figure.

I tore up the note and sent it down the toilet. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. I went to bed that night with plenty to think about. Talk about little brains working overtime. I considered reciting the Gettysburg Address just to slow down my thoughts. Mostly, I wondered why I even cared. After all, I had spent my life perfecting the art of not giving a crap. As I lay there staring at the ceiling, Barkley jumped into bed with me. There would be dog hairs all over the place, come morning. I didn’t care. I’d clean it up tomorrow. There would be plenty of time. I had another full day before my debt to society was paid. I would take the vacuum to the hairs. I’d get that damn machine working if it killed me.

 


You can learn more about Stu Newman at his website, http://stunewman.com/author/

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